Euro 2016 final: ‘Ugly duckling’ Portugal might do it dryly, but they can win

Come what may, they will not be remembered – outside their homeland, anyway – as a great team, writes Richard Jolly.

Portugal's Pepe, centre left, and Cristiano Ronaldo, centre right, with teammates during a training session in Marcoussis near Paris, France, 09 July 2016. Portugal face France on 10 July in the Euro 2016 final. EPA/FILIP SINGER
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Euro 2016 final: France v Portugal, Sunday July 10, 11pm (UAE time)

France's first victory in Euro 2016 came on June 10. Portugal did not win within 90 minutes until July 6, almost four weeks later.

Didier Deschamps’ team topped their group. Fernando Santos’ side finished third in theirs. France walloped the minnows Iceland 5-2. Portugal were held 1-1 by them.

No wonder that even Cristiano Ronaldo accepted: “They are favourites.” It is easy to identify ways in which Portugal are underdogs and improbable finalists.

Theirs is arguably the most unconvincing progress to a final since Argentina’s in the 1990 World Cup.

They were held by Austria, perhaps the most disappointing team in the tournament, Iceland and Hungary, who began as two of its rank outsiders.

They overcame Croatia when recording their first shot on target in the 116th minute.

They beat Poland purely because of impeccable penalty taking. Only against Wales were they truly deserving of victory. Even then, they scarcely touched the heights.

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Disappointing or disciplined, ruining a tournament or resolute survivors, perceptions of Portugal can differ. They are the sort of side who meet with grudging admiration, rather than widespread acclaim, when they prevail.

They are unapologetically pragmatic. “I’m not bothered about being the ugly duckling,” manager Santos said earlier this week. “In between being pretty and being at home, or being ugly and being here, I prefer to be ugly.”

Portugal have made an unpleasant sight at times: the dour clash with Croatia, for instance, ranked as one of the great disappointments of Euro 2016, a game that promised much and produced virtually nothing.

The warnings were in place long before then. Santos’ Greece were an essentially dull side who confounded predictions by progressing from their group at Euro 2012 and in the 2014 World Cup.

When Santos, 61, took over his national team in September 2014, he inherited a side that had lost at home to Albania and promised to put “tactics first and technical ability second”. He has been true to his word.

Apart from the enjoyable anarchy of the 3-3 draw with Hungary, Portugal have been hard to break down. Ignore that, and they have conceded two goals in 510 minutes in Euro 2016.

They have fine-tuned their defence, determining Cedric Soares was an upgrade on Vierinha on the right and ruling Jose Fonte was preferable to Ricardo Carvalho, 38, in the centre.

They have remodelled the midfield, bringing in William Carvalho and Renato Sanches, even if it is hard to believe neither started the tournament in the team.

They have all seemed minor characters in the Ronaldo soap opera, such is the fixation on and fascination with the captain and record scorer.

And yet, when teams are hard to beat – and Portugal are undefeated in 13 competitive games under Santos – it is indicative of a deeper resilience, of the qualities of spirit and organisation required to weather difficult times. Santos has instilled them over his reign.

“We are stronger, more solid, more united,” he said, contrasting the team now with the group he took to Paris 21 months ago.

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His tenure began against France who, as hosts, played friendlies against the teams in Group I instead of a qualifying campaign.

Portugal lost 2-1 that day. For good measure, they lost the rematch 1-0. They also lost friendlies to Russia, Bulgaria and England.

They have shown the priceless ability of being able to recapture their resolve when it has mattered. Their progress has not always been logical.

In some respects, it has been lucky – they were diverted into the easier half of the draw because Iceland scored an injury-time goal against Austria and would otherwise have met France in the quarter-finals – but they have found a way, in a side without specialist strikers and with a midfield lacking flair players.

Come what may, they will not be remembered – outside their homeland, anyway – as a great team.

Yet that illustrates what a great achievement it would be if, against all expectations this largely unloved group overturn the expectations again and emerge as European champions.

It may be winning ugly but it would amount to a momentous victory for a national team which has never secured major silverware.

Richard Jolly’s verdict

This writer tipped France before the tournament and did not even expect Portugal to reach the semi-finals.

Their progress has been so unimpressive that a possible conclusion is that their name is on the trophy.

There are also reasons to believe in Portugal – a defence that has only conceded once in the knockout stages and the possibility that Cristiano Ronaldo can shape the tournament by a combination of willpower and frenzied, incessant shooting – but it would also feel symbolic of a tournament that has been underwhelming in some respects if Portugal, without being particularly good, became champions.

It may be 1-0 after extra time, or via a penalty shoot-out.

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